Religious Never Trumpers Have to Be Tougher Than the Rest


(Bloomberg Opinion) — Conservative resistance to President Donald Trump comes at a price. But at least Never Trumpers in politics, such as the conservative operatives behind the Lincoln Project video that so enraged Trump this week, enjoy the praise of liberals and like-minded conservatives even as they are denied contracts with Republican campaigns and interest groups.

White conservative religious leaders who resist the charms of MAGA face similar perils, with little of the upside. Trump’s approval rating among white evangelical Protestants has been consistently high. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, it was 66% in April, down from 77% in March, when Trump enjoyed a bump in the brief window after the coronavirus became a national threat and before his personal incapacity was exposed. Even now, his support among white evangelicals is about 50% higher than among Americans generally.

Trump’s appeal, says Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI, is based “more on fears about demographic change and white Christian displacement than the traditional culture war issues of same-sex marriage and abortion.”

Such fears are a consistent element of white Christian conservatism. It’s worth noting those who rise above them.

Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch based in Southern California, offers a quiet counterpoint to the politics of white grievance and rage that permeate conservative America. Saddleback is conservative. But not like that.

Warren has built a hugely successful ministry, notes Jonathan Merritt, an author of several books about Christianity in America. But over the last decade and a half, says Merritt over email, “every time he has waded into the political arena, he has gotten burned.”

Yet how to avoid politics when it’s all-consuming? A recent Saddleback email to members and supporters highlights the story of Kristy Aguilar, a woman who “moved to Southern California from Ecuador just eight months ago” and had been working at a hotel until she was laid off. While the immigration status of people like Aguilar is a cruel obsession in the White House, it goes unmentioned in the email. Instead, Warren’s church asks its predominantly white, relatively affluent members, many of whom may be suffering themselves, to stretch their moral imaginations:

Picture yourself living in a foreign country with no job and a depleting savings account during this global pandemic. Think of the feelings of fear and hopelessness that could gnaw at you day in and day out. That is no imaginary scenario — it is the reality Kristy Aguilar has been facing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the presidency of George W. Bush or Barack Obama, such a statement might have seemed a gentle chime from the church steeple. Under Trump, it clangs like a fire bell. There is no way to project Christian empathy for an impoverished South American immigrant in 2020 without running smack into the pillars upholding the house of MAGA: xenophobia and racial antagonism.

Later in the email, Saddleback drives home that its broad Christian embrace does not have an immigrant exception: “One of Saddleback’s values is that we are an all-nation congregation. Kristy’s story shows that everybody is welcome and wanted at our church, and that God brings people to Saddleback from all over the world to further his kingdom.”

Warren offers a model of how to be deeply conservative without succumbing to the peculiar degradations of Trumpism. With rare exceptions, most notably Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, conservative politicians have failed spectacularly to manage that feat. Yet the pressure on religious conservatives appears no less aggressive than that directed at political conservatives.

Russell Moore, the conservative president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, criticized Trump’s immorality and racial aggression in 2016. Trump attacked him personally, and Moore has been fending off attacks from Christian conservatives ever since.

By contrast, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler recently revised his stand to make it less offensive to MAGA. In 2016, Mohler called Trump a “sexual predator” unworthy of support. Last month, he said he’s making a different “political calculation” in 2020. Professional religion, like professional politics, has a high tolerance for hypocrisy. There’s little to no risk in toeing the line.

That’s all the more reason to admire those, like Moore and Warren, who refuse to truckle to the mob.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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